I’ve just finished a wonderful book by Margaret Forster called Lady’s Maid, the lady’s maid in question being Elizabeth Wilson who worked for the nineteenth century poetess and famous invalid, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Wilson is with her from her consumptive, melancholy days in 50 Wimpole Street in London, through the arrival and courtship of Robert Browning and their dramatic elopement to Italy, up until her death in 1861. I picked this up to read because I’ve always been interested in knowing more about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and rather fancied for myself the life of coughing delicately into a lace handkerchief on a chaise longue whilst being visited by up and coming poets. But my sympathies were abruptly overturned after this book, for Margaret Forster brilliantly portrays the inequalities between the classes and brings the dilemmas and the difficulties of Wilson’s situation so vividly to life that by the end I was ready to chain myself to a few railings in protest, until I remembered that many decades have passed since a servant underclass was a reality.
In retrospect the book to me seemed like an unusual and unlikely love affair. When Wilson arrives in London to tend to Elizabeth Barrett she is timid and anxious and terribly homesick. Elizabeth Barrett, a helpless invalid confined to her room, shows Wilson tenderness and profound gratitude and before she knows it, Wilson is utterly devoted to her mistress, and ready to do anything to please her. This will eventually include being complicit in her secret marriage to Robert Browning and then embarking on a long and dangerous journey to Italy. Once there, Wilson continues to be indispensable, helping her mistress through a number of miscarriages and finally the birth of her only son, which she will then bring up almost single-handed. Yet whilst Wilson fulfils her duties with passion, she has her own feelings to consider, not least a desire of her own for marriage and maternity. Having made friends in London with Elizabeth Barrett’s previous maid, Wilson is forewarned of what will happen to her if she fails in her devoted servitude and turns her affections towards others. Elizabeth Barrett is a jealous and needy tyrant in many ways, who obscures this darker side of her nature with outpourings of love and sympathy. As Wilson gradually becomes aware of the constraints that surround her, this love proves to be disappointingly conditional and unable to transcend the barriers between masters and servants.
This becomes clear when, after eight years of service in which she has been not only lady’s maid, but nursemaid and nanny and often housekeeper too, she realises she has never received an increase in her wages the way other servants have. Her requests for a raise are met with hurt bewilderment – is she not paid far better than her peers in love? Unfortunately love will not rescue Wilson’s much-loved mother and sisters from the poverty into which they have unfortunately sunk. But the battle over her wage is nothing compared to the difficulties she will encounter once she marries and becomes pregnant. Forced to chose between her own life and that of her employers, she is obliged to leave her son behind in England with a sister to return to her post in Italy, and the difference between Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s labour, attended by the best physicians and her skilful maid, and Wilson’s own, are shocking to witness. A second pregnancy puts her beyond the pale; she is now nothing but a trouble and a nuisance to her employers, and with the money she is paid off with, she sets up in a boarding house nearby, doing the best she can to stay close to those she loves, although the relationship is a hollow effigy of what it once was.
It’s clear to see that Wilson presumes on the master-servant relationship, but she is led to do so by the way that her mistress blurs the boundaries. In the final reckoning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning has the power to dispense love as she chooses, but Wilson can only love, such is her position of vulnerable dependency. Margaret Forster is a brilliant historical chronicler and she recreates the life of a nineteenth century servant with a simple directness that is surprisingly moving. Anyone who thinks they are overworked ought to read an account of what our ancestors were expected to do to earn their wages. We take the ease and comfort of our lives so much for granted. We also take our relative equality too much for granted as well, and it’s a salutary lesson to remember how far women, in particular, have come in the past 150 years. I’m not the biggest fan of historical novels, but this one was excellent, accurate and profound, and I’d warmly recommend it, as well as pretty much anything by Margaret Forster.